There’s nothing like a hurricane to hurtle everybody into an existential crisis. Last week, I, along with a bazillion other Miamians, skedaddled from the coast. And by skedaddled, I mean I puttered up the Florida peninsula in bumper-to-bumper traffic, hoping my tank of gas wouldn’t run out and leave me stranded when Irma arrived.
Meanwhile, radio stations blared updates about Irma’s devastation in the Caribbean, days after Harvey tore Houston to pieces.
For ten solid hours, all my wherewithal flew out the window, and with it, my stories. Who was I among others desperate to survive? Did any story I had told or could tell even matter anymore?
Luckily I made it to my intended shelter, but Irma knocked us off the grid. We’re talking NO gas, NO internet, NO power. Well, except for keeping a little charge in my phone. And while I count myself lucky I didn’t lose any property or loved ones, the hurricane did make a mark on my psyche:
I couldn’t wait to get back to Miami and find a new place in it. I couldn’t wait to see what kind of stories I could tell, because a life without stories, hurricane or no hurricane, isn’t a life I want to live.
Here are five lessons I learned as a storyteller. They got me through one weather crisis. They’ll get me through another.
#1 – Things can always get worse
When we are stripped of conveniences, we suddenly start to appreciate what we do have. The simplest of assets quickly become luxuries. And folks, things can always get worse, especially in a hurricane. Evacuation can take days instead of hours. The supply of drinking water can run out. Batteries can die. A tree can fly through your window.
How did I deal? I recited this simple mantra every five minutes:
“I may not have [______], but at least I have [______].”
I filled in the first blank with modern conveniences: hot coffee, lights, A/C, Netflix. Then I filled in the second with simple assets: running water, soap, a clean tank top, my running shoes, a phone with 20 percent battery life.
Then I found a blank sheet of paper and writing utensil. In a flash of clarity, I wrote “luxuries” at the top, and then listed all the assets. I included “blank sheet of paper” and “writing utensil” on the list because, as a writer, tools for writing are my greatest assets.
Then, I turned the paper over and wrote “possibilities” at the top. What did I list? My ongoing writing projects and ideas for new ones.
I had luxuries AND possibilities, even if things did get worse.
#2 – Tiny nephews don’t give a flying flip about hurricanes
Having served as one of my nephew’s three grown-up playmates/protectors during Irma, I appreciate more than ever the levity AND sense of normalcy little kids can bring to a crisis.
I love his tiny self and he loves me. But unlike the grown-ups, he doesn’t give a flying flip about hurricanes.
Picture this: a hurricane rumbles just outside your window, but you pay it little attention. Why? Because a tiny, giggly, googly-woogly human wants to play with YOU. He toddles closer, your heart grows five times its normal size. But then you notice something out of place: his diaper is full and drags the ground. And it stinks so bad you have to hold your breath.
You know what that means. The tiny giggling human needs someone to take care of ‘im. YOU might as well do it. You might as well do it NOW. Maybe Irma will appreciate the effort. Once the tiny human smells decent again, you get back to playing. You read ‘im a baby book that consists of three words per page. Although you wonder whether there’s even a plot, much less a real protagonist, you narrate in your most exciting voice ever. You’re a storyteller. It’s what you do.
The toddler stops babbling and becomes captivated. Even Irma quiets down. When you finish that book, you grab another and another, until the lights go out. Then you smell that smell again. You hold the flashlight with one hand and with the other …
Tiny humans just don’t give a flying flip about hurricanes.
#3 – Productivity is possible
Once the worst of Irma passed and I saw that everything was mostly intact, my next thought was how to keep up with my writing projects I’d listed as “possibilities.” Even with no electricity, I wasn’t gonna sit around twiddling my thumbs when I could use ’em to type. So I wrote over 2,000 words on my phone (laptop battery doesn’t hold charge for long) and developed a righteous cramp in both thumbs. Then I put those 2,000 words to good use, composing a piece on “cheap adventures” and the stories therein and co-writing a guest blog post for Writer’s Dialog.
Once the roads cleared and businesses started opening up, I did what any writer would: I siphoned electricity and Wi-Fi from the closest Starbucks … and then proceeded to spend more money than I should have on Venti Dark Roasts and prepackaged food. All ten fingers thanked me as they raced across my keyboard.
#5 – Things fall apart
When I wasn’t writing with my two thumbs or entertaining a tiny human, I learned to play Settlers of Catan and won my first game. Given the game’s objective, which is to establish “settlements” and become a more powerful civilization than one’s opponents, I am fully aware of the irony of playing it during a hurricane.
My strategy to win was to grab up as many game board “ports” as possible, so I could trade the cards I was dealt–“resources”–for better ones. I couldn’t help but think about Houston, right along the gulf coast, and Miami, the port city I’d evacuated from, in need of all kinds of supplies and resources to recover from damage. I couldn’t help but remember the sight of otherwise well-behaved human beings scrambling for the scarcest of resources–a full tank of gas, jugs of water, generators.
It doesn’t take much for order to break down and things to fall apart. In a crisis, people can generously share their homes and resources with those in need. At the same time, the temptation exists to hoard and look out for Number One, just like in Catan.
#5 – Things can be put back together
Back on Miami Beach, life is returning to normal. Buildings have mostly been restored to power and more than a few palm trees still have fronds. Utility trucks have been racing here from all over the southeast to get Florida back on the grid.
Me? I’ve got my list of luxuries and possibilities. I’m already hard at work using them to create.
My heart goes out, most especially, to residents of the Florida Keys, Houston, and the Caribbean, who have a lot more to rebuild than I do. For some, a list of “luxuries” and “possibilities” won’t help. Instead, I’ll donate what I can and show up to assist others in my community.
And I’ll be listening for the stories.
Readers, have you heard of any effective relief efforts? Have a hurricane story of your own? Share in the comments!